All my life, I've been a sucker for the latest technology or the newest gadget. So when Amtrak recently unveiled its new Acela train service, featuring computerized locomotives that promised to shave hours off of travel time, I decided to give it a whirl. I purchased a ticket to Washington, D.C., which according to the Acela timetable was a three hour jaunt from New York.
By the time I stepped off that train some seven hours later, I had learned two valuable lessons. One was to never again book a trip with Amtrak. The second: A technology aimed at transforming the customer experience is only as good as the corporate infrastructure supporting it.
The technical troubles that would plague my trip began as soon as the train left the station, lurching like a car with a bad transmission and with the air conditioning and lights flicking on and off.
Despite these problems, the train pulled into Newark, N.J., and picked up more passengers. Somewhere between Newark and the next stop a conductor finally made an announcement about the stuttering motion and flickering lights, saying it was a computer malfunction, and would be fixed once we got to Philadelphia where there was a technician waiting with a laptop.
Unfortunately, the train never made it to Philadelphia. It sputtered to a stop between stations about 30 miles outside the city. Amtrak's solution to this problem: it stopped another already full train and forced us to perform a "train-to-train" transfer. This took hours since there were no seats and people were forced to jam together in the aisles with their luggage.
Once in Philadelphia, we were told to go into the station where someone would be waiting to help us. There was no one there even remotely aware of our plight. In the end, we had to argue with the agents to honor our tickets and get us on the next train to Washington.
Where do I begin to describe the problems with this "experience?" Why wasn't a technician with a laptop part of the train's crew? Were there any contingency plans in case of failure? Where were public relations and customer service?
New technology, no matter how seemingly foolproof, is bound to fail at some time. In this case, the failure of the Acela engine was not the reason why myself and probably hundreds of other travellers that day will no longer do business with Amtrak. The fault ultimately lies in Amtrak's organization and its obvious inability to adequately plan for and evolve with the new technology it is attempting to introduce.
Amtrak's ultimate goal with Acela is to bring back the patrons it has lost to other more convenient forms of travel. A new engine helps, but it can only go so far on shoddy tracks.